Open Source Forum Shootout - phpBB

In the last post in this multi-part series, I'm going to look at arguably one of the most popular PHP free forum solutions out there, phpBB. It is designed to be feature-rich and a complete solution for building an online forum.

phpBB logo

It requires PHP 4.3.3 and a supported database (including MySQL, Oracle, Postgres and even Microsoft SQL Server). I'll be covering the latest version at the time of writing, 3.0.1. As always, it's all about Ease of Installation, Features, Extensibility and Themes.

Ease of Installation

The extraction is pretty much a standard process, with both zip and tar+bzip2 archives available on the downloads page. Once you've extracted, you have a phpBB3 folder.

Right off the bat here, you can browse to the folder you extracted to to get this fancy-looking Installer.

phpBB Installer

It's nice and clear, provided you realise you need to click the Installation tab. Once you're on it, you click through to a Requirements screen, which compares what you have on your server with what you need and optional components. This does make it nice and clear of any issues you might need to clear up before you proceed.

At this point, I changed the permissions on config.php, as it identified the file as not being writable.

Now you enter the database details (setting up a database first if you don't have one) and move on. If you didn't set the permissions on config.php to be writable, you will at this point have to copy and paste the completed contents manually into the file.

After this point, you have an opportunity to set some basic options before the database tables are created and filled with data. After that, delete the install directory and you're ready!

The installation process here isn't quite as streamlined as some, but the Installer is well written, fairly clear and elegant.

Ease of Installation Score: 7/10


phpBB is all about features. One of the main aims of phpBB is to provide what most people want in a forum, so that they don't have to go and hack the core code or add plugins to get commonly desired functionality.

This means that phpBB is chock full of features right from the beginning. These include:

  • BBCode
  • Emoticons
  • Categories and unlimited subforums
  • Avatars and Signatures
  • Ranks
  • Private Messaging
  • Access Control Lists and Pruning

If you don't want to spend a lot of time fiddling around installing extra things after the main software to get the features you want, phpBB definitely fits the bill in this area and certainly has an impressive featureset.

Features Score: 8/10


This is my big gripe with phpBB. Unlike other forum systems, that utilise a plugin architecture, phpBB has no way of adding external features to the main software without ugly mods (involving patching the core files).

Sure, mods do work, but they're a lot more difficult to install most of the time and they add numerous changes and therefore complications to the software that discourage people from doing important security updates to the core software itself.

I would love to see phpBB include a real plugin system for a future major release. It would clean this process up so much and make a lot of developers, site owners and security people a lot more happy.

On the positive site, the newest mods generally ship with browser-based install instructions that do walk you through most of the process of manually updating files. Thanks to phpBB's popularity, there is also a huge quantity of third-party mods available.

Extensibility Score: 1/10


phpBB's themes system, called Styles, is very well executed. As well as a massive community of designers building themes and therefore a wide range to choose from, Themes are pretty easy to install and apply.

You head over to the Styles Database, download a zip package and extract it into your styles/ directory. A simple trip to the Admin CP later, you can apply that style. The process works just how it should. Well, actually, no.

I searched, but the Styles DB only appears to list phpBB 2.x styles right now, which isn't much use when it comes to phpBB 3.0.1.

Third party sites, however, do offer lots of phpBB 3.0 styles, and once you do get the right package the installation process is simple and you get up and running with a new style almost instantly.

From a technical perspective, the templates are built using HTML with custom tags (through custom HTML comments) to define dynamic sections that are evauated by phpBB at runtime to build the templates into the relevant pages. It's not quite as simple as some systems I've seen, but I guess it does the job adequately.

phpBB template file screenshot

Themes Score: 6/10


Feature-wise, phpBB is very hard to beat this side of the source code divide. As I've said already several times, if you don't want the hassle of installing plugins for features like avatars and PM that other forums don't include in the core, phpBB might be for you.

Having said that, if you really want to go wild with features, you will be stuck using the (to put it politely) less-than-optimum mod system, which could quickly become infuriating following software updates to the phpBB core software itself.

It does have a large dedicated support community, however, and lots of others are using it. phpBB is a bit like Marmite - you either love it or hate it, and sometimes it can be an acquired taste. Personally, I don't particularly bite, and would prefer something a bit lighter, but it takes all sorts.

phpBB, you get a 5.5 out of 10.

Avatar for peter Peter Upfold -

Peter Upfold is a technology enthusiast from the UK. Peter’s interest in Linux stems back to 2003, when curiosity got the better of him and he began using SUSE 9.0. Now he runs Linux Mint 9 on the desktop, runs a CentOS-based web server from home for his personal website and dabbles in all sorts of technology things across the Windows, Mac and open source worlds.

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Discussion: Open Source Forum Shootout - phpBB

  1. Sephi (guest)

    # Posted on 12 June 2008 at 01:35 PM

    Too bad you don't talk about the ease of use AFTER the installation. I own a phpBB3 board, which I recently converted from phpBB2. The conversion was very easy, but after that, you're overwhelmed with functionalities, which are most of the time useless. On a single page, you're faced to almost 50 different links to do 50 different things and it's very hard to get used to it.

    Also, the default template is very deconcerting. Why did they put the user informations on the right of the topics ?! IMHO, it's the worst choice they ever made.

    phpBB3 is a good board engine, but it's far too complete. On the other side, punBB lacks some functionalities and its code is pretty dirty (mixing the PHP code inside the HTML code).

    The perfect bulletin board still doesn't exist...

  2. Dr Small (guest)

    # Posted on 15 June 2008 at 07:07 PM

    Check out MyBB and FluxBB while you are at it, too.

  3. Adam (guest)

    # Posted on 25 June 2008 at 02:30 PM

    I am no phpbb geek and I find mods and hacks extremely easy to implement once you become comfortable with the code. I have added almost over a dozen modifications to my website and created a custom theme.

    I would rank phpbb 9/10 for mods because no other forum system includes the vast extensibility that phpbb offers.

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